The Johnny Scott story part 2: World Cup hero

Cod Almighty | Article

by Andy Freeman

14 June 2018

In part one of the Johnny Scott story, Andy described how Scott established himself as a fans' favourite at Blundell Park. In 1958, he would make club history.

If any one year encapsulated Rudyard Kipling's "triumphs and disasters" of the sporting world for Johnny Scott, it was the year 1958.

In February of that year the whole footballing world was shocked when 23 Manchester United players, journalists and passengers were killed instantly, and a further three died in hospital, when the plane carrying the United team back from a European Cup fixture crashed on take-off at Munich airport.

Of the team that had included Johnny Scott in a Division One match at Preston two years before, Roger Byrne, Eddie Colman, Duncan Edwards, David Pegg and Liam Whelan were all among the dead. Five friends and former team members, from a team that might have been the greatest in Europe, had been wiped out.

Two days later Scott was playing at Blundell Park in a 4-0 victory in a second division match against Lincoln City. Men weren't expected to show emotion in those days. The coffins were on their way home and Duncan Edwards and Matt Busby were fighting for their lives in a Munich hospital as the Mariners kicked off.

In that same year Johnny Scott was selected, rather surprisingly, for the World Cup finals which were due to be played in Sweden. His performances for the Mariners in season 1957-58, had been noted by Northern Ireland manager, Peter Doherty.

Northern Ireland had qualified for the finals by topping a qualification group that included Italy and Portugal but nobody expected much from them. Doherty had other ideas. He had a close-knit small group of talented world-class players, the likes of Harry Gregg, Jimmy McIlroy, Billy Bingham, Peter McParland and skipper Danny Blanchflower, most of whom plied their trade in the English first division.

Doherty recognised Johnny Scott as a perfect squad player in case of injury to any of his senior pros: energetic, versatile enough to play anywhere in the front line, intelligent, pacy with real skill, a scorer of goals and a penalty-taking expert. Perhaps Scott was not expecting to make the team in any of the qualifying games but pictures of him boarding the plane show a confident young man, delighted to be representing his country.

The whole of this remarkable World Cup adventure is documented in a book Spirit of 58: The Incredible Untold Story of Northern Ireland's Greatest Football Team by Evan Marshall and it is a fascinating story. There are also clips of the games on YouTube and a DVD, The World Cup Finals 1958, with remarkable footage of the 16 qualifying teams and the likes of Brazil's Garrincha, Didi, teenage sensation Pele; Fontaine and Kopa of France; Fritz Walter and Uwe Seeler of the holders West Germany; England's Tom Finney, Bobby Robson and Johnny Haynes.

Few people gave "wee Northern Ireland", as goalkeeper Harry Gregg called them, a chance of getting out of a group that contained West Germany, Argentina and the best passers of a football in Europe, the brilliant Czechoslovakian side. But after three bruising, hard-fought games Northern Ireland had to win a play-off against the Czechs to reach a quarter-final game against France. Injuries to key players led to the 24-year-old Johnny Scott being given his international debut in probably his country's most important game ever on 17 June 1958.

World Cup debut

And what a game to make your debut! The most exciting, thrilling, tense game ever played by a British team in the World Cup finals. There were a quarter of a million radio listeners back home as Northern Ireland kicked off in Malmo. Scott was named as centre-forward, to confuse the Czechs, but actually started on the left wing before moving to inside left later in the game.

The film highlights show Johnny Scott making a confident debut. He is involved in play all the time, the number 14 on his back being prominent throughout the game. After 10 minutes he was inches wide with a shot from just outside the penalty area.

Peacock was injured after 80 minutes but gamely stayed on the pitch; there were no substitutions allowed. Worse was to follow with keeper Norman Uprichard sustaining a serious ankle injury and then breaking a bone in his hand. Unbelievably he stayed on the pitch between the sticks.

Czechoslovakia scored but Northern Ireland bravely fought back, a goal from McParland levelling the scores. And then in extra time with the team down to effectively nine fit men, a long free kick from Danny Blanchflower was volleyed into the net by McParland. Scott is on the edge of the box as McParland scores. He holds his arms up in the air in sheer delight and ecstasy. Few players can have felt such pleasure and pride in such a wonderful winning display.

"Well done, lads. You were magnificent!" Manager Doherty's words in the dressing room must have remained with the young Mariner for the rest of his life.

A quarter-final tie against the French beckoned only two days later with the prospect of meeting Brazil in the semi-final if they won. What would the footballing gods dictate? Johnny Scott retained his place but injuries and exhaustion caught up with the Northern Irish side and they lost 4-0 to the superior French. But he went home to a hero's welcome.

A month after featuring in the World Cup, Scott returned to Blundell Park and scored twice in his first home game in front of 22,261. Does footballing life get any better?

To have been part of that tremendous sporting achievement put Johnny Scott of Grimsby Town in the pantheon of Northern Ireland's sporting greats. As Danny Blanchflower said, summing up the team's achievements: "In years to come when we reflect with the judgement and enchantment that distance lends to these things, we may marvel at the almost impossible feats we achieved."

Johnny Scott returned to Blundell Park a month later and scored in the first game of the season, a 3-3 draw at Liverpool in front of a crowd of 47,502. And he scored twice in his first home game versus Lincoln City in a 4-2 win in front of 22,261 in a packed Blundell Park. Does footballing life get any better?

Loyalty and entertainment from a local hero

Scott played 33 games for the Mariners in 1958-59, 45 games in 1959-60, 45 in 1960-61 and 37 in 1961-62 when, as we saw in part one, he helped Grimsby regain their second-flight status. Pretty impressive commitment and loyalty. There's no record of him wanting to leave to play at a higher level or for more money or 'silverware'. He was happy to enjoy his football, to entertain and to continue his career as a local hero.

I've picked out extracts from the reports of two games that Johnny Scott played in against Sheffield United in 1958 as examples of the football experience and the way it was reported in the 1950s.

The Mariners played Sheffield United at home on Christmas Day 1958 and lost 2-1 in front of an unbelievable 13,946 spectators. Who needs television highlights when you can read 'Blundell's' match report that evening?

... Ron Rafferty repeatedly caught the eye with his restless rovings and whenever Scott edged clear of left back Graham Shaw [England's full-back of the time] the crowd sensed a break through.

A right flank skirmish put Rafferty through and when his shot crashed off Hodgkinson's body Fell returned it to the top corner- only to see Graham Shaw amazingly leap up to head clear with "Goal!" on everybody's lips.

The compactness of the visitors' defence cancelled out numerous raids particularly on the flanks but after Lewis miskicked with a terrific swipe, Conner made the probe which opened up the tight United line.

The left half robbed Hamilton and shoved a low ball through the middle. Rafferty sprang after it and just when it seemed that he had placed the ball a shade too far ahead of him the leader was brought down in the box.

Scott made no mistake with a well placed penalty kick in the 41st minute...'

Wonderful writing. And then, two days later at Bramall Lane, Town were 2-0 down after 15 minutes...

Rafferty Scores.
Town snapped back with a sudden rally in the 21st minute which produced a RAFFERTY goal.

Cullen robbed Joe Shaw in the box and Fell came through to beat Hodgkinson with a shot which Graham Shaw hacked off the line for a corner.

From Scott's flag kick Rafferty sprang up alongside Hodgkinson and got a scoring head to the ball.

I must have been feet away from that corner flag. Dad, my brothers and I (all avid Blades fans then) always stood at that part of the ground. I have no memory of it but our paths crossed, briefly.

High pedigree

Johnny Scott remained a fans' favourite at Blundell Park but played his last match for the Mariners after a series of minor injuries in a 4-1 defeat at Stoke City in March 1963. However popular a player was, they were ruthlessly discarded in the early 1960s. No mention of testimonials or 'severance packages'. Nearly 30 now, Johnny Scott would have to find another club. He made 21 appearances for York City before moving on to Southern League Margate in the summer of 1964.

The Margate FC website shows real appreciation of Johnny Scott's pedigree and his skill on the football field in the two years he played for them before he retired. He played 48 times in 1964-65 and scored 17 times including a "bullet-like" shot in a 3-0 win over Canterbury. Then in season 1965-66 "the most talented player on Margate's books" played 47 times and scored nine "spectacular" goals, many of them from 25 or 30 yards. I'm pleased that he was obviously still enjoying his football at 33 years of age, still at a very reasonable level.

Johnny Scott retired from the game in June 1966 just as the tectonic plates of British football were shifting dramatically. When Alf Ramsay dispensed with orthodox wingers in the 1966 World Cup most clubs followed suit ignoring the qualities of wide playmakers. The 2-3-5 system which had served the game for a hundred years became 4-3-3, 4-4-2 or even stifling 4-5-1.

The coincidence of Johnny Scott's retirement at this time seems significant: the end of one era and the beginning of another. The days of great wingers like Cliff Jones, John White, Stanley Matthews, my own favourite Len Allchurch, the peerless Tom Finney and our own Johnny Scott seemed to be over and packed midfields seemed to lead to safe, boring football.

An ordinary life and an early death

How much had Scott earned in his career? The maximum wage rule was in operation for most of his career. Wages were pegged at £15 a week in 1953, rising to £17 a week in 1957 and up to only £20 a week in 1960, the year before the maximum wage was abolished. Given that the average industrial wage in 1960 was £15 a week, he can't have made a fortune out of the game. Former footballers must look at the salaries of players today with mixed feelings.

Johnny Scott moved back to Manchester where his wife came from and took an ordinary unskilled job. I suspect he worked quietly and modestly. What he and his contemporaries would have thought about the earnings in 2017 of similarly skilled footballers to himself, Tom Finney and Stanley Matthews doesn't bear thinking about. (In 2017 second-flight players averaged £195,750 per year, third division players £67,850 per year and even in the fourth-flight players pocket £49,600 per annum.)

There are many examples of stars having to take up ordinary working life when they retire from football. Albert Scanlon, survivor of Munich and a Manchester United player and England international, resumed work as a Manchester docker; Ted Burgin, England reserve keeper in the 1954 World Cup finals, worked as a binman.

Shockingly, on Wednesday 21 June 1978, 16 years after his last game for Town and almost 20 years to the day since his memorable international experiences, the Grimsby Telegraph reported an incident on the building site where Scott worked:

The death has occurred of Johnny Scott, the former Grimsby Town winger, after an accident in Manchester. He was 45. [sic: actually 44]

Scott, who leaves a wife and daughter, Caroline (20), played for Grimsby between 1956 and 1963.

Dick Conner, Grimsby trainer-coach and playing colleague of Scott at Blundell Park said today he was stunned by the news as he had been talking to Scott only two weeks ago and was arranging to see him shortly.

"I understand some scaffolding collapsed and John suffered injuries from which he died later in hospital. His friend working alongside him got away with bruises" said Dick today.

Scott played for Northern Ireland in the 1958 World Cup.

How shocked and saddened everyone associated with the Mariners must have been by the news. "His friend working alongside him got away with bruises." The footballing gods had rolled their final dice.

There's a footballing phrase 'the nearly men', but I don't think Johnny Scott saw himself as the failure the phrase implies. He missed out on a career with Manchester United but settled for one with a lower-division football club. I suspect he was philosophical enough to realise that with a few more turns of the dice he could have been on the plane that skidded off the runway in Munich, four months before he helped make sporting history for Northern Ireland.

Northern Ireland are not involved in this year's World Cup, having missed out so narrowly on qualification. Perhaps we could raise a glass when the tournament starts and remember Johnny Scott, Busby Babe, Mariner, a Northern Ireland World Cup international, a gentleman of grace and dignity who gave delight and enjoyment to all those who saw him play.

After we published part 1, several readers wrote in with their own memories of Johnny Scott. Please keep them coming and we'll publish a follow-up article soon.

Featured photo © Grimsby Telegraph. Our thanks to the Telegraph for permission to use the image.